Congress will soon be charged with solving decades of water conflicts in the Klamath Basin – an arid region spanning Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Members of the tribal and ranching communities formally gave their support this month to a pact settling disputes over water rights and access to irrigation water. That was the final hurdle before federal legislation could be written to enact the Klamath Agreements.
But before key supporters start pushing their cause on Capitol Hill, they’ll be making a visit Friday to the Klamath Basin. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Oregon’s Gov. John Kitzhaber and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are among those who will take part in a signing ceremony. It’s an attempt to gain some momentum as they work toward congressional approval for the agreements.
Legislation is required to authorize $495 million in federal spending over 10 years for restoration work and to provide economic assistance for the Klamath Tribes, including money for a new tree farm. It would also authorize the removal of four Klamath River hydroelectric dams owned and operated by PacifiCorp -- Experts say would be the largest dam removal project in history.
A series of water crises prompted action in the Klamath Basin.
Flashpoint moments include a 2001 water shutoff for area farmers, salmon kills in the Klamath River the following year and sporadic bird die-offs in wildlife refuges. The latest flashpoint was last summer’s curtailment of irrigation water for ranchers in the upper Klamath Basin.
Last summer, Sen. Wyden convened stakeholders to address three lingering issues before taking a running start at congressional action: water distribution in the upper basin, access to cheaper federal power and the high costs of the proposed agreements.
With the tribal and ranching communities voting in support of the agreements, that process now moves to Capitol Hill. Wyden said he intends to use his position on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and his chairmanship of the Finance Committee to bring the issue to a Senate vote by year's end.
“This is the top priority. This is the model in my view for water policy in our country," Wyden said.
In a recent statement, Gov. Kitzhaber wrote that “with this achievement, we have now done what Senator Wyden sought: to fix the remaining local issues before seeking congressional approval for the settlements. I applaud the patience and dogged determination of everyone who has worked to move their communities forward.”
Despite that forward progress highlighted by Kitzhaber and others, unanimous consensus has remained elusive.
Conservation groups continue to argue that it’s necessary to reduce water demand in the Klamath Basin and to distribute water for the wildlife refuges beyond what the agreements provide.
Oregon Wild conservation director Steve Pedery said related legal action could be pursued against the federal government.
“In the next few weeks conservation advocates will be pursuing legal options to force the Obama administration to meet its legally required obligations to ensure that commercial agriculture on the refuges does not harm the fish and wildlife they were established to protect,” Pedery said.
Jim McCarthy of Oregon WaterWatch also disputes the price of the agreements, which dropped to $495 million from a much-higher earlier estimate.
“Supporters have resorted to accounting gimmicks to mask the full taxpayer cost of the [Klamath Settlement Agreements], which remains near $1 billion,” McCarthy said.
And though the Klamath Tribes’ leadership has supported the agreements throughout the process, some tribal members protested the vote, which received 57 percent approval.
Tribal chairman Don Gentry said the agreements, if passed in Congress, would provide long-term economic and ecological certainty.
“What we’ve been able to achieve here is nothing short of remarkable -- trying to provide for sustainable agriculture and also sustainable fisheries and treaty resources for the tribes,” he said.
Some conservatives in the basin, including Klamath County commissioners, remain critical of the agreements, with opposition to dam removal being a key issue.
Kitzhaber’s natural resources advisor, Richard Whitman, says drought conditions highlight the need for basin-wide solutions to water resource challenges.
Whitman says the Klamath Basin is even drier than last year when ranches were cut off from irrigation water due to inadequate supplies.
He estimates the current Klamath Basin snowpack, a key indicator for summer water availability, to be 25 percent of normal.
“We’ve got a lot more precipitation as rain and not as snow,” Whitman said. “That means that it’s going to run off faster and it’s going to get dry later in the year and that’s really a concern.”
But Whitman says Oregon’s congressional delegation remains supportive of the Klamath Agreements.
In addition to Wyden and Merkley, Whitman says the staffs of Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. and Greg Walden, R-Ore., are routinely briefed on these issues.
Nevertheless, the legislation intended to solve the Klamath Basin water crises is still pending -- and the appropriation of half a billion dollars is hard to come by in a budget-conscious Congress.
In the meantime, further water shutoffs are expected this summer for Klamath Basin ranchers.
Similarly challenging situations are expected for federally protected salmon in the Klamath River system and the area's wildlife refuges.